Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Romans 11:25-36) transports me to the football field of my wife Kim’s alma mater, Furman University, during her tenure as a student there in the early 80s. Kim tells me that Furman’s President at that time, John Johns, was much beloved by the students, not so much for his skilled administration and effective leadership, which was apparent enough, but for the energy he brought to football games, as he created a tradition of leading the enthusiastic crowd in a rowdy cheer every game. He would climb up on the cheerleaders’ platform, wearing his purple sports coat, and shout through the megaphone- F U one time! F U two times! F U three times! F U all the time! Chaplain Jim Pitts was in the President’s office one day when Dr. Johns got a phone call from a disgruntled alumnus, who asked him if he knew what F U meant. He replied, Of course, it means Furman University. The caller explained to him the other meaning of the abbreviation, and Dr. Johns feigned innocence, responding, You have a dirty mind! and hung up the phone. I thought of John Johns’ cheer recently when a good friend came back from a protest around economic and environmental justice. He told me he had been disappointed to find that a pretty intense “F U energy” was predominant among the protesters, and while he acknowledged there are good reasons for people to vent frustrations, he lamented that outrage isn’t likely to build larger coalitions or create the kind of transformation needed in our culture.
There is plenty of F U energy in the Bible, and not the Furman University variety. There’s a whole lot of flipping off evildoers and a condemning them to one hell or another, be it the trumpeted hell of Jericho’s genocide or the prophetic hell of exile and oppression or the wormy and teeth-gnashing hell of fire and brimstone. There are plenty of proof texts for those who want to deepen the great divides between the good folks and bad, the righteous and the unrighteous, the saved and the lost, the heaven-bound and hell-bent. But it is not in today’s passage. Here in the book of Romans, the nadir of Paul writing, the synthesis of his theology, we read and feel a very different energy. What cheer does Paul lead here in this passage? A cheer of universal mercy and salvation. Twice he makes use of the inclusive word all – in verse 26, he claims that all Israel shall be saved; God will take away their sins, even though they have rejected the gospel. He goes on to include Gentiles as well as Jews in his expansive vision of God’s saving grace; while both groups are disobedient, both receive mercy, with the idea summed up in verse 32: For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
Saving mercy for all. There are times when this idea, when this inclusive energy, gets stretched to the limits. I think about the opposing kind of energy, the excluding F U energy, that has been circulating on YouTube this week, and the responses to it. Pastor Charles Worley in his viral sermon was essentially flipping off all the lesbians and queers of the world, giving them a roaring F U all the time, wishing he could consign them all to a concentration camp type of hell. And there are plenty of progressive folks who have no trouble flipping him off and dishing it right back at him. Most of the F U’s coming back at Charles Worley are far more clever and sophisticated and far less direct than his harangue, but it’s an F U energy nonetheless, shaming him and placing him square in the ranks of intolerable outsiders. I find myself resonating with the frustrations of my friend who went to the public protest. As justifiable and understandable and necessary as the rage and the prophetic pushback is, we also need something more transformative. We need a different kind of energy to direct toward the Charles Worleys of our world. What if we all donned our purple coats and shouted a different kind of F U into the megaphone – a Forgive You cheer? Forgive You one time! Forgive You two times! Forgive You three times! Forgive You all the time! What might happen if all the progressive Baptists in and around Maiden, NC, gay and lesbian as well as straight Baptists who are welcoming and affirming, by the mercies of God went and joined Providence Road Baptist Church? For real, not for show. Now that would be a real trip, a true “Maiden Voyage.” What if this group of new members spent time getting to know the congregation as well as the pastor? Learned to sing their songs. Volunteered in their ministries. Prayed for their sick. Sent cards to their homebound. Took food to their covered dish suppers. Became part of them. What if this group of new members prayerfully forgave the church of whatever wayward theologies and destructive ethics they might hear week in and week out, and learned to love them? Who knows, the old guard Providence Road folks might just let their guard down and get to know these strangers, in all their humanity, and learn to love them, too. Transformation might happen, and all might be surprised by grace along the way. For indeed, as Paul taught us, God has bound everyone over to disobedience of one sort or another, so that the good Lord might have mercy on us all.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to respond, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc.